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What does It Mean to "Pick Your Battles"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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People use the term “pick your battles” to suggest that people would be well-advised to select a specific issue of importance to focus on, rather than trying to deal with too many things at once. Individuals may also hear this saying rendered as “choose your battles,” and many people append “wisely” when offering this piece of advice. As a general rule, it's extremely sound advice, whether one is an individual struggling with personal issues, or the leader of a country.

This phrase references a well-known aspect of military strategy, which suggests that when troops are thinly stretched, they are often unsuccessful. For example, when a country tries to fight a war on two fronts, it often struggles to secure both, and sometimes it is more advisable to deal with one issue before proceeding to the next to help ensure success. The more fronts a military is coping with, the harder it is to handle the strategic and day-to-day operations on all of these fronts, and sometimes a front must be abandoned because there are not enough personnel to secure it, which is generally undesirable.

In a classic instance in which someone might be told to “pick your battles,” a parent might be struggling to deal with an unruly child. Rather than trying to address every aspect of the child's problematic behavior, the parent could pick one serious issue to focus on first, such as a tendency to stay out late. Once this issue had been dealt with, the parent could move on to other problems. While this approach might take longer than trying to handle everything all at once, there is a higher probability of success, since the parent can take the time to work through each problem carefully and precisely to ensure that it is dealt with.

Sometimes, it can be tough to choose which battles to fight. Many people are faced with situations in which multiple issues seem equally important at some point in their lives, and they may struggle to single out one to focus on. Sometimes, it helps to ask for advice from a neutral party, to get an opinion from someone with an outside perspective. Especially when someone feels passionately about multiple issues, it can be important to remember that if he doesn't pick which battles to fight wisely, you may end up failing at all of them, and ending up worse-off than he started.

Some people find that, if they pick their battles well, they can neutralize problems along the way as they address the most important issues first. It can also help to enlist, as it were, supporting forces to help hold the line. In the example of the parent above, for instance, asking for help from a teacher, minister, or friend of the family is entirely appropriate.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Oceana — On Jan 21, 2013

@Perdido – I need to try this with my husband! I'm always on him about needing to pick up after himself and put things away, but I suppose I've been too generic with it. I need to focus on one battle, like getting him to put his dirty clothes in the hamper instead of on the floor.

By OeKc05 — On Jan 21, 2013

Even a housewife has to pick her battles. There are so many things that need to be done around the house, and if I try to take on all of them in one morning, I lose the battle.

Instead, I choose to fight the mess in the kitchen one day and the mess in the bathroom the next. Otherwise, I will just become overwhelmed, fatigued, and defeated.

By wavy58 — On Jan 20, 2013

I was having issues at my new job, and my dad told me to pick my battles there. His advice was excellent, because I know that if I had complained to my boss about everything that was bothering me at once, I might have lost my job.

The thing that bothered me most was the fact that I was taking on the majority of the workload. There was another person there who had the same job, and he needed to be doing his share of the work.

My boss had been bringing things directly to me instead of giving us both a chance to work on them. I asked him if he could split it a little more, and he agreed to do this. He wasn't even aware he had been piling it on me!

By Perdido — On Jan 19, 2013

My mother used to have to pick her battles with my father. There were many things that annoyed her about him, but she knew that if she nagged him about all of them all the time, she would only alienate him.

So, she just honed in on one aspect until he improved at it. As far as I know, he never complained about her nagging him, so I guess it worked!

By anon172454 — On May 03, 2011

It's from Sun Tzu's "The Art of War".

By anon160052 — On Mar 14, 2011

Do you know, was it Gandhi who said "pick your battles"? I have heard this but cannot confirm it.

By vogueknit17 — On Dec 10, 2010

Of the many common sayings and phrases of wisdom I have heard, this is one of the very best. I know that there are many examples, on a personal level at least, when I wish I had picked my battles rather than forging ahead; it also is a lesson I wish that many of the current world leaders would consider with more seriousness.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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